Names like "Robber's Roost" and "Brown's Park" and the "San Rafael Swell" are synonymous with the most infamous outlaws the West has ever known.
But during the 1880s and 1890s, those same canyons that offered haven to outlaws were also prime rangelands for tens of thousands of cattle - all part of a flourishing Western tradition of open-range cattle ranching that still exists today.In those days, however, when outlaws were not out robbing payrolls, they were often out rustling cattle. And the sheer nature of the landscape made the rustling virtually impossible to stop.
One Utah rancher decided to try a different approach to his cattle-rustling problem. "Nutter found it more practical to hire outlaws to work as cowhands at one time or another during their cooling-off periods. Most of them were cowboys at one time or another and made top hands, but what was more important, their code prevented them from rustling from an employer," wrote Virginia Price, Preston Nutter's daughter.
It was Nutter's uncanny ability to blend shrewd negotiation with iron-fisted determination that turned an otherwise unnoteworthy gold prospector into one of the richest and most politically influential cattle barons in Utah history.
In time, Nutter would become one of Utah's most powerful businessmen and one of the largest cattle barons anywhere in the Old West. Even with a cattle empire stretching from the Grand Canyon to the Book Cliffs, Nutter's story remains virtually unknown.
"He is a very much overlooked figure in Utah history," said Roy Webb, assistant manuscripts curator in Special Collections at the University of Utah's Marriott Library. "He was much bigger than the more famous ones in Wyoming or Texas. But he tended to operate behind the scenes. He kept his accounts in his head and he kept it all to himself. It wasn't anybody else's business but his."
Conservative estimates place his cattle herds at between 25,000 and 30,000 head.
The story of Preston Nutter is one of famous outlaws, renegade Indians and range wars with sheep ranchers. Many Nutter stories are undoubtedly myths. Many others were recounted by his daughter in the Summer 1964 Utah Historical Quarterly prior to her death.
Currently, there is an ongoing attempt by Carbon County and Brigham Young University to document the actual historical ranching sites throughout Nine Mile Canyon, where Nutter's empire had its headquarters after 1902.
"To appreciate the whole history of Nine Mile Canyon or the history of cattle ranching in Utah, you have to look first at Preston Nutter," said Pam Miller, an archaeologist for the College of Eastern Utah's Prehistoric Museum in Price.
Attempts to piece together Nutter's role in the history of southern Utah are difficult. The native Virginian avoided publicity and was anything but flamboyant. And fires in 1936 and again about 20 years later destroyed many of Nutter's personal papers.
But the legend lives on. Nutter claimed never to have worn cowboy boots and always rode a mule - something he could do for days on end without food or sleep. He had a reputation for driving his men hard and his enemies harder.
During one encounter with sheepherders - who in those days traditionally roamed the state without respect to who owned grazing leases - the shepherd told Nutter, "They tell me I be all right if I don't run into old man Nutter."
"They told you right," Nutter said.
Because of his tremendous wealth, Nutter often found it easier to buy out troublesome competitors. Nutter's cattle operation would eventually encompass the entire "Arizona Strip" area, the entire summer range around Strawberry Reservoir, the rugged West Tavaputs Plateau and the Book Cliffs area near Price.
By 1900, he owned at least 25,000 head of cattle - one out of every 10 cows in the entire state. In one cattle drive alone, Nutter pushed 5,000 head of cows north across the Colorado River.
While no animals were killed in the crossing, "it is possible we lost a few spectators lined up to watch from the banks," Nutter said. "I was too busy to keep an eye on them."
Nutter rose from a one-time prospector to operating a small freight company to cattle ranching on a relatively small scale. In the process, he learned some shrewd business maneuvers.
In the mid-1880s, a winter dubbed the "Great Cattle Extinction" descended on Utah and Colorado - snows so deep and winds so cold that cattle began dying by the thousands. Hundreds of operators went out of business, and cowboys - with no work to be found - often became outlaws.
But Nutter had predicted the disastrous winter and had purchased leases around the railroad at Thompson Springs in Grand County. When grass became non-existent on the range, Nutter survived by using the railroad to bring food to his cattle.
"It got so bad that ranchers started selling their cattle to Nutter for 10 cents on the head," Webb said. "He was a bull in a bear market. And that's what got his herd started and put his competitors out of business."
Webb, who studied Nutter's papers for two years, said Nutter had a tendency to step on people who got in his way, but he always did it within the law. "The image of a ruthless cattle baron with a six shooter and cowboy boots just didn't apply to him," he said. "Nutter used lawyers instead."
And he was not above using politics to further his agenda. In the 1890s, when anti-Mormon sentiments were at a fever pitch, Nutter filed claims on all of the water holes along the "Arizona Strip" in southwestern Utah.
Mormon ranchers had been using the range for 50 years but had never filed claims with the federal government. Nutter filed the claims and subsequently controlled an area there larger than all of New England. When Mormon ranchers protested, the courts sided with Nutter.
"He was shrewd," Webb said. "If he wanted some land or cattle, he would get it. Certainly not by foul means but by using his head."
At times, Nutter was the largest cattle baron in Utah, competing with other cattle companies in southeastern Utah and the LDS Church's Deseret Land and Livestock.
After his death in 1936 at age 86, the Nutter Ranch was operated by his daughters. It was sold several years ago to an oil company and is currently being leased to a local rancher.